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In his DNA: How one adoptee’s DNA test helped uncover his birth family

Steve Drees used DNA testing to find his birth mother and several cousins.

THOMPSON, N.D. — Though he was adopted, Steve Drees never felt the impulse to find his biological parents. After he had open heart surgery in March, though, he found himself yearning to learn about more about his origins.

For Father’s Day, his daughters bought him a genetic testing kit, a gift that’s helped Drees piece together his past. He learned, for instance, that heart disease runs in his family.

The kit, sold by DNA testing company 23andMe, came with a note from his daughters:

“So you can find out where you came from.”

But it would take a fair amount of legwork, a little bit of luck and a few false leads before Drees could even get in touch with his biological family. In the end, he uncovered his link to a long lineage of North Dakotans.

Fortunately for Drees, his birth family has welcomed him into the fold with open arms.

A long journey

Drees’ first brush with genetic testing dates back to 2001, more than a decade before the boom in “direct-to-consumer” use of the technology.

23andMe itself wasn’t founded until 2006.

By 2018, the number of people who used at-home DNA testing kits skyrocketed to more than 12 million, MIT Technology Review reported last year. That’s more than double the number in 2017 and more than four times the number in 2016, according to the magazine.

In 2001, Drees requested a non-identifying report from his adoption agency in Fargo after he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma.. The report, which often is performed for medical reasons, provides some basic information about an adoptee’s family of origin, but “nothing you can actually trace back to a person,” Drees said. The report told him his mother’s father managed the meat department in a supermarket.

The information proved crucial in Drees’ path to his birth mother.

Many years later, after Drees sent off a saliva sample to 23andMe, he was informed that his great-grandfather was Martin Syver Stenehjem.

Drees then reached out to Allen Stenehjem, one of Martin’s grandsons. Based on some other research, Drees thought that Allen’s sister, Sue, was his mother. Sue had died, so Allen was the best person to ask.

But Allen didn’t think it could be.

It was then that another relative contacted Drees out of the blue with a different idea: Sue wasn’t his mother, but maybe Sue’s brother Stephen was his father? The cousin also postulated that another woman, Carol Martenson, was Drees’ birth mother.

As Drees did a little more research of his own, the details began to line up. Carol and Stephen went to the same school at the same time. And Stephen was a descendant of Martin Stenehjem, Drees’ great-grandfather.

More legwork

The path looked promising, but Drees’ journey wasn’t quite over. He wanted to get in touch with Carol to confirm she was, in fact, his mother.

Through some more research, Drees found out Carol had a younger sister, Anita. He couldn’t find a working phone number for Anita, but he tried the next best thing: Facebook.

In his message, Drees told Anita he was doing some genealogy research and had some questions.

The next day, she responded and asked what those questions were. Drees asked Anita what her father did for a living in the 60s. Anita said her father managed the meat department for SuperValu in Bismarck.

“I thought, well, I know I have the right person,” said Drees. So he asked Anita if she could give him contact information for Carol.

Anita’s first response was no. There was brief pause in their communication after that, and Drees worried he had given too much information or scared her off.

Finally, Anita responded and gave Drees a cell phone number for Carol. He called the number to no avail. He even tried to send a text and received no response.

Initially discouraged, Drees contacted Anita once more. She looked over the number and realized one crucial mistake: It was off by one digit. Anita then sent along the correct number and Drees gave it a ring.

“I called Carol and she had been waiting while I was trying to call the wrong number,” he said. “I said, ‘My name is Steve,’ and then I couldn’t say anything. She said, ‘You’re looking for your mother, and you have the right Carol.’”

Lucky breaks

Drees’ story may be inspiring, but it’s not typical.

“When you have an adoptee who’s older, it may be harder to find biological parents because they might already have passed away,” said 23andMe spokesman Scott Hadly. “It’s amazing he was able to track them down.”

But do-it-yourself DNA kits can point someone to cousins and other previously unknown relatives, Hadly added.

Drees said adoptees interested in learning more about their background should be prepared for roadblocks.

For some adoptees, forming relationships with biological family members can be challenging.

Drees said he’s fortunate that his biological family was receptive.

“It’s been a wild, wild ride,” Drees said. “But it’s been tremendously positive.”